An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science


Subject Inspection of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE)



St. Joseph’s Secondary School,

Stanhope Street, Dublin 7

Roll number: 60843Q


Date of inspection: 21 April 2009





Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning


Summary of main findings and recommendations





Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE)


Subject inspection report


This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Joseph’s Secondary School, Dublin 7. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in SPHE (including Relationships and Sexuality Education) and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and teachers of SPHE. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.


Subject provision and whole school support


SPHE is an integral component of the holistic education programme provided in St Joseph’s Secondary School. All junior cycle students are timetabled for one class period of SPHE per week, in accordance with the requirements of the Department of Education and Science circular letter M11/03. Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is incorporated into the junior cycle SPHE programme. Good provision is also made for senior cycle RSE through Religious Education or Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) Social Education.


While junior cycle SPHE is timetabled for one class period per week it was noted during the course of the evaluation that ten minutes of one lesson visited was given over to students’ break time. This arrangement, which occurs during the third period of each day, leads to an erosion of tuition time. Therefore it is recommended that this practice be examined in the context of a complete review of the whole-school timetable. In completing this review due cognisance must be taken of the Department circular M29/95 to ensure compliance with the minimum requirements in respect of the provision of weekly tuition time.


Very good practice is evident in the deployment of staff to SPHE. The subject is taught by a core team of three teachers who display a commendable level of enthusiasm for and commitment to the continued development of the SPHE programme in the school. It is laudable that teachers are assigned to teach SPHE by consultation. A good gender balance is evident among team members. Efforts are made to ensure that teachers remain with their class group for the three years of the cycle. This very good practice is encouraged further to enable teachers build a positive rapport with students from first year through to third year. This may be possible if the number of teachers on the core team was expanded slightly.


Senior management considers continuous professional development (CPD) as essential in supporting high quality provision of SPHE. It is established school policy that SPHE teachers participate in relevant CPD, therefore a systematic and incremental approach is evident in the development of teachers’ knowledge and skills. This is very good practice. It was noted positively that materials from some of the in-service courses attended are retained on file. This good practice is encouraged to facilitate on-going planning and discussion at subject department team meetings.  As evidence of the whole-school approach taken to facilitating the social, personal and health education of students, a number of whole-staff CPD inputs have also taken place. To support the good work already evident it is recommended that priority be given to upskilling a number of teachers in the area of senior cycle RSE. Further information on the RSE training planned for the autumn is available for the SPHE Support Service website at


There is a very good range of easily accessible resources for SPHE. It is laudable that the subject co-ordinator has compiled an electronic catalogue of these resources to facilitate lesson planning. Management is very supportive of requests made for additional materials.


There is good collaboration between the care team and members of the SPHE team. This good practice is encouraged to facilitate a cohesive and holistic approach to the personal and social development of students in the school. A number of whole-school events designed to promote positive practice in areas such as physical activity, emotional health and multi-culturalism effectively support the social, personal and health education of students. The school welcomes visiting speakers to support the SPHE programme. It is recommended that the good practice evident in the school’s procedures for using visiting speakers be documented in the SPHE policy.


SPHE enjoys a good profile in the school. The provision of dedicated SPHE notice boards along the corridors is a particularly commendable means of providing students with up-to-date information on relevant topics and of displaying work completed in lessons. To augment this good practice consideration could be given to organising an SPHE display at the information evenings held for parents during the school year. This would provide further information on the programme provided by the school.


Planning and preparation


A number of whole-school policies have been developed to support student care. These include policies in areas such as anti-bullying, RSE, substance use and SPHE. The sub-committee structure used to draft policies allows for a commendable level of consultation to inform the development of these policies. The anti-bullying policy has been reviewed recently as part of the school’s engagement with the Cool School Programme. The fact that students and parents fed into the review of this policy is particularly commendable. The substance use policy is due for review. To support a cohesive approach to SPHE, the section of the policy outlining the provision for drugs education should be amended to reflect the current programmes offered in the school and the existing syllabus content of the subjects mentioned.


While the school has a comprehensive whole-school RSE policy, management recognises that there is a need to review the existing policy to allow it reflect the changing context of the school. Therefore, in accordance with the requirements of Department circular letter 27/08, it is recommended that the board of management, through collaboration with senior management, staff and parents make provision for the development of an updated RSE policy. The revised policy should be in accordance with the recent guidelines issued by the Department of Education and Science. These guidelines can be downloaded from the education personnel section of the Department of Education and Science website at


The position of SPHE co-ordinator is well established and is undertaken on a voluntary basis by a teacher who has considerable experience in teaching SPHE. A professional and committed approach is being adopted to the co-ordination of the subject. As the core team comprises experienced teachers of SPHE, it is recommended that consideration be given to rotating the role of co-ordinator. This would share the workload attached to this position and allow each member of the team assume a leadership role in the continued development of the SPHE programme.


Management facilitates formal planning time twice yearly as part of the schedule of staff meetings. It is commendable that an agenda is planned and that minutes are kept for each meeting. However, due to the fact that all of the SPHE teachers are involved in teaching other subjects, difficulties can emerge that restrict full attendance at team meetings. To overcome this problem it is recommended that management gives consideration to scheduling subject-specific slots for team meetings to avoid such clashes. It is acknowledged by the team that planning for SPHE, both at class and whole-school level, necessitates regular planning meetings. As a result meetings are often held at lunch time or, in previous years, at times where two teachers had a concurrent non-teaching slot on their timetable. A review of records from previous meetings indicated the dynamism of the team in planning for junior cycle SPHE and in organising valuable whole-school events such as the Healthy Lifestyle Week. Management could give consideration to the team’s request that all three teachers would have a concurrent non-class contact slot on their timetable next year.


Good progress has been made in the development of a collaborative programme plan for the junior cycle SPHE programme. This plan demonstrates a broad and balanced coverage of the ten modules comprising the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) curriculum framework for junior cycle SPHE. The resource lists included for each topic are a particularly good idea as they enable teachers to choose resource material suited to their class group. The collaborative plan would benefit from further development in order to foster and facilitate an incremental approach to the delivery of course content. Therefore it is recommended that the plan be amended to include specific learning outcomes for each topic. The learning outcomes should indicate the knowledge, understanding and skills that students should achieve, as well at the positive attitudes to be promoted from first year through to third year. The actual number of classes devoted to each topic, together with the teaching and assessment strategies planned, should also be specified.  This level of detail will enhance the very good work already evident by further promoting a coherent and incremental coverage of the SPHE curriculum framework.


To assist with on-going programme review, consideration should be given to routinely using the end-of-module review forms available in the SPHE Handbook. This would allow students to provide feedback and inform the cycle of review and evaluation.


Since staff members will attend senior cycle RSE training in the autumn, this provides an opportunity to review the breadth and balance of the senior cycle RSE programme. To complement the review of the whole-school RSE policy, it is recommended that the good work carried out as part of the senior cycle RSE programme be documented in a similar fashion to the junior cycle SPHE programme.


Teaching and learning


There was very good planning and preparation for all of the lessons observed. This included the selection of a very good range of class materials such as suitable songs, poetry, student handouts and worksheets. These resources supported students’ learning effectively and facilitated good learning outcomes. Some effective use of information and communication technology (ICT) was also evident. The further use of ICT such as appropriate video clips or images could also be considered and catalogued for use by the teaching team. The commendable range of methodologies observed in lessons resulted in a very good balance between knowledge acquisition, skills development and the fostering of positive attitudes.


All lessons had a clear focus. The topics and content chosen were very relevant to students’ needs. Lessons were generally well paced. However, to enhance practice it is important to be mindful of allowing adequate time for lesson summaries. This would provide opportunities for assessing individual students’ progress and providing additional clarification of key concepts where required.


It was noted positively that the aim or topic of each lesson was shared with students from the outset. This proved effective in setting the scene for the lesson. To support continuity, good links were also made with previous learning. This is very good practice in a SPHE context where lessons are delivered once a week. To enhance this practice, and support the further development of the collaborative plan, it is recommended that key learning objectives are shared with students at the beginning of each lesson. The objectives should be framed in terms of what the students themselves would be doing and why. The outcomes can be revisited during the lesson to consolidate students’ learning and facilitate further opportunities for student reflection and self-evaluation, which is a key principle underpinning the aims of the SPHE syllabus.


There were very good examples of experiential learning evident in the lessons observed. The active methodologies deployed ensured that there was a good balance between teacher-led and student-led activities. This typifies very good practice in the facilitation of SPHE lessons. Ice- breaker activities such as walking debates, teacher-led discussion and brain storming exercises proved very effective in encouraging students to think about the topic and in linking it with their own experiences. Well-chosen stories, poems or songs assisted deeper classroom discussions, clarified concepts and probed attitudes in a very sensitive manner. In some lessons students were provided with the chance to develop skills and confidence in group-work activity. This very good practice provided ideal opportunities for students to reflect on the material being taught and to discuss the issues with their peers. The class teacher, in facilitating a feedback stage, clarified issues that arose. This very good practice enhanced learning and assisted the development of positive student attitudes on the issues being discussed.  Small group work or pair work is encouraged further as it can prove very beneficial in enabling students to develop social skills, as opportunities are provided for those who may be shy or apprehensive about speaking out in a larger group to develop confidence in this area.


Questioning was used to very good effect to encourage students to express their opinions and make sound judgments on issues relating to the lesson topic. Very good practice was evident in instances where the development of students’ higher-order skills was facilitated by using gentle probing questions that encouraged students to analyse critically the information under discussion. Best practice was evident in instances where questions were well distributed among students to maximise student engagement.


Observation of a sample of student work indicated good progress in lessons. It is commendable that students are provided with some opportunities to individually reflect on lesson material. However, it was noted that there is some variation in the system used to enable students to store lesson  materials. Due to the integrated and holistic nature of the SPHE programme, students may need to reflect back on the work covered in previous years. Therefore it is recommended that an agreed system be developed for students to store and file material from their lessons. It is suggested that students may find it useful to store their material from first year through to third year in a folder. Due to the confidential nature of some of the material from lessons the folders should be stored securely by the class teachers.


Planned learning activities were very well managed, with a secure, caring and supportive atmosphere evident in all the lessons observed. Some good use was made of class contracts, which establish the ground rules for SPHE lessons. This is very good practice in the context of a SPHE lesson.




Assessment of students’ learning was evident in all lessons. Questioning strategies, teacher monitoring of activities and plenary sessions from group work served to assess individual levels of learning as well as provide affirmation and feedback on the tasks assigned. This is good practice. In some instances students are set an occasional home task for SPHE. This good practice is encouraged, as it can support continuity between lessons and provide an opportunity for the provision of constructive feedback to students. Some good practice was noted where students had to routinely reflect on their learning in an SPHE lesson. Formative and summative assessment that includes the provision of feedback is an essential component of students’ learning in SPHE. There is scope to extend the range of strategies used by the team to assess students’ progress and provide opportunities for the provision of constructive feedback and teacher monitoring. Therefore as a means of building on existing practice, it is recommended that the SPHE team agree an assessment policy. It is important that the assessment modes used are fully compatible with the aims and objectives of the SPHE syllabus. Information and support on assessment is available in the Guidelines for Teachers (pp 59-68).


Teachers maintain very good records of students’ attendance and the work completed in SPHE lessons. It was noted positively that the SPHE policy clarifies school procedures if reporting matters of a sensitive nature. At the next review stage, this information should also be linked to the relevant sections of the school’s child protection, critical incidents and RSE policies.


It is commendable that the school reports to parents on students’ progress in SPHE at parent-teacher meetings. In the context of developing an assessment policy for SPHE, the team could consider the use of school reports as an additional means of providing feedback to parents and students.


Summary of main findings and recommendations


The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:




As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:




Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of SPHE and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.





 Published, November 2009